Denver meeting points to problem of refugee care falling to local communities

Update April 22nd:  Friends of Refugees has more on this visit, here.

This is an article I’ve had in my queue for the last couple of weeks and somehow something more pressing always seemed to get in its way.  But, I do need to tell you about it. 

I mentioned when I attended the “celebration” for the Refugee Act of 1980 in Washington, DC a couple of weeks ago that Asst. Secretary of State Eric Schwartz was headed to Denver and Phoenix for more meetings on the refugee overload being experienced in many of the US’s “welcoming” cities.  He was leaving for Denver that very day.

Here is the Denver Post’s article about that meeting:

Nearly a dozen representatives from state and volunteer agencies who help refugees rebuild their lives got a rare chance this week to tell high-ranking U.S. State Department officials what work is like on the front lines — and that they could use a little more support.

This year, the State Department will bring more than 70,000 refugees to this country. About 2,600 will find their way to Colorado. [This phrase always makes me laugh, “find their way,” as if refugees arrive in the US and stick a pin in a map and say, golly, this is where I would like to live.  The resettlement agencies divvy up the refugees and they decide where people are going with the exception of secondary migrants discussed later in the article.-ed]

When they do, it’s up to local governments and private organizations to figure out how to help them.  [Most of the private organizations are also funded by taxpayers.-ed]

Some will be sick or elderly or injured; many will be traumatized. A few will have been doctors or engineers in their home countries; others won’t know how to read or write in any language, let alone how to navigate the aisles of an American supermarket.

Maria Otero, undersecretary for Democracy and Global Affairs, told the representatives she’ll take their ideas back to Washington.

She and her staff heard plenty of them.

Paul Stein, director of the Colorado Refugee Services Program, which oversees resettlement here, pleaded for more flexibility in how states spend the money that comes from federal agencies.

“We need to be better prepared for what’s coming, not what’s in the rear-view mirror,” Stein said.

Health departments overloaded

Brenda Hummel, the state refugee health coordinator, said it’s particularly frustrating not to know when someone coming to Colorado needs medical attention.

Refugees are supposed to be medically evaluated before they get here. But, she said, those evaluations commonly miss serious problems. That leaves the state health department scrambling to find them care, she said.

Individuals are hurt, and the whole resettlement program suffers when workers don’t have accurate information about the refugees arriving, Stein said.

Eric Schwartz, a State Department undersecretary who also attended the meeting, said the department has taken steps to address the issue.

Obama’s National Security Council is presently working on “reforming” the refugee program but don’t hold your breath that local communities will be given much consideration.  My reform suggestion is that there should be a Sociological and Economic Impact Statement prepared by the federal government in advance of refugee resettlement to a given community.  For existing “welcoming” communities the impact study needs to be updated on a regular basis.  If a city is overloaded, the federal government stops sending refugees to that city.

Of course that doesn’t solve the secondary migrants problem.  That is when large numbers of certain ethnic groups just arrive in a town usually following word that there is work, or in some cases like in Maine where there is a great welfare system.

A recurring theme of the downtown meeting was a lack of attention to what those who work with refugees call “secondary migration” — groups of refugees who leave the areas where they first settle in search of jobs.

That happened in Greeley, said Judy Griego, director of Weld County’s human services department.

After immigration officials raided the Swift meatpacking plant in 2006, dozens of Somalis arrived, hoping to fill jobs vacated by the raid, Griego said.

“It ends up being on the counties to take care of these individuals,” she said.

The 2,600 refugees Colorado expects in 2010 would be a sizable increase over recent years and comes as resources to help refugees get acclimated, find jobs and learn English are stretched thin.

For everything you ever wanted to know about the mess in Greeley, CO where Somalis demanding religious accommodation ticked off all the other meatpacker workers from the multicultural labor force, we have an entire category on the subject, here.

Everything will be better if people just understand that refugees are legal immigrants (yeh, right!)

While lack of funding is a recurring issue, one problem that could be addressed with little or no money is the widespread misunderstanding of who refugees are.

They aren’t illegal immigrants, and most residents have no idea what the refugees have been through or why they are here.

People in the community don’t see those distinctions; they just see people coming into their community and draining resources,” said Karen Beye, executive director of the state human services department.

Do you really think that telling people in the midst of the great recession that refugees are legal is going to make them feel better about throwing more tax dollars into the refugee program?

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